In conversation with Sharon Cowan: the politics of queerness

Sharon Cowan (she/her) is a professor of feminist and queer legal studies at the Law School here at the University of Edinburgh. She treated me to a conversation surrounding the meaning of the word ‘queer,’ from its empowering history to its powerful politic.

I met Professor Cowan at the Redefining Leadership: LGBT+ Student panel event. We had a lot in common: cis white women interested in academia. Her, now comfortably self-defined as queer; me, still on the fence regarding what I should call myself. I asked her for an interview for my own sake, if not to continue an important conversation on queer identity.

During the panel discussion she mentioned how she was asked to explain to the Principal, Timothy O’Shea at the time, why the word ‘queer’ wasn’t offensive and could be used in a professional title. Naturally, she defended her choice: “I said something along the lines of what you would hear normally from people who use the word ‘queer’ in explaining it to people who associate it with a denigratory slur that would have been used in the ’60s or ’70s. From a political activist point of view, the word is being reclaimed and used as a positive umbrella label for people who don’t identify as heterosexual or cisgender.

“On top of that, it’s a subject in its own right. It’s a disciplinary approach, a perspective in academic studies. So having a queer perspective means a very particular kind of perspective on power and particularity hetero-normative power and so on. So there is a little bit of that kind of political activism and a little bit of theory in my explanation of why this word was not just, you know, not a slur but also why it was an important word to use and an empowering word and an important word to recognise.

“There is still a lot of stigmas attached to it by people who don’t understand. And I’m not saying that the Principal is one of those people. Actually, it’s pretty refreshing that Timothy O’Shea […] paused and went “what is that? I’m gonna find out what that is.” But I think there are people at the university who make assumptions about the word queer and what it means. […] They would rather not be confronted with the word because it feels like they would not know what to do with it.”

This was just one example of how Cowan had to defend the word and her ability to use it: “When Jonathan McBride and I first started the Staff Pride Network, […] as a small group we decided we wanted to call ourselves the LGBTQ network, but when we went back to HR with this information it wasn’t looked at very positively.

“The people in HR didn’t understand the word [queer], so they said “management is not happy with the use of the word queer, what about just LGBTI which is what the government uses? And the inclusion of the ‘I’ is controversial, which you probably already know, [because] some intersex people don’t want to be grouped with LGBT folks because they don’t see themselves that way.

“So, you know, there were some people in the group, including Jonathan, [who] were like “you know we gotta get ourselves off the ground. It doesn’t matter what we call ourselves. You have to pick your battles.” Cowan did not agree. She loudly placed her mug on the table, “No. This is battle number one. So you’re gonna say that the university is going to ‘allow’ a marginalised group to organise but they’re not gonna let them call themselves what they want to call themselves? No. That’s power. From the bat, you’re under this structure.”

Eventually, the group put it to a vote and chose to drop the Q, calling themselves the Staff Pride Network instead.

“Even within LGBTQ communities, there is no consensus around using Q. I find that fascinating, why people wouldn’t want to use the word ‘queer,’ even though I know as an individual person that I didn’t use the word queer to describe myself until 6-7 years ago”.

The word’s radical nature is a product of its history. Starting in the early 1900s, although also used by people within the community, it was a slur used to target LGBT+ people used in a similar way to “d*ke” or “f*gg**.” Around the 1980s, Queer Nation and AIDS activists began taking back ownership of the word.

“I think that’s a very good example of telling truth to power. We’re gonna take the bad thing that you think of us and turn it into a positive thing. Like we’re here and we’re queer and we’re not going anywhere is a really powerful message of fighting back, resistance, trying to be in charge of your own destiny.

“I love that fact that that’s where it came from, […] from resistance and telling truth to power and I don’t see it as having been diluted just because it’s not used in that way anymore. I think it’s actually really still a powerful word and a lot of people see it as confrontational.

Cowan commented that Libra, her astrological symbol, is an accurate description of her constant struggle for balance. She not only struggles with whether the word ‘queer’ should be normalised, which could lead to a dissolution of its “political bite,” but also with the legalisation of same-sex marriage: “on one hand I would say it’s awesome that we have same-sex or same-gender marriage because you can’t exclude one part of the population from the rights that the other part of the population have. But on the other hand […] we have to come up against stuff. We can’t just smoothe everything out so that everybody is just happy and equal. It doesn’t actually work like that.

“It’s normalising of queer relationships and queer identities, and some queer people don’t wanna do that, right? Some queer people are against the idea of marriage. Opening it up to everybody is all very well in terms of a formal equality kind of approach to the world but in terms of trying to undermine like hegemonic, hetero-normative forms of living it’s not a progressive move, it’s a regressive move. I can feel those things at the same time.”

To Cowan, the word is unique in that it not only describes who she has sex with, but also defines her politics: “The most descriptive word would be bisexual but I often felt that the word bisexual had no political bite and I feel the same about gay and lesbian.

“Bisexual, to me, often I think is perceived by people as not a political word but a descriptive word as someone who is attracted to both genders as if there were only two genders. And I felt very strongly that [whilst] that might describe me in some ways, it doesn’t capture the fact that I’m also attracted to other people of other genders besides men or women. And pansexual also doesn’t work because it doesn’t have any political power. Whereas queer is a massively political word.

“Queer, I think, describes that I’m very attracted to lots of people of different genders and that I have a strong political view about sexuality and gender and gender identity. So that’s how I came to use the word for myself. You used the word ‘vague,’ I would say it’s inclusive rather than vague and it also has this political aspect to it which allowed me to combine my personal with my political with my work.”

Cowan believes that it is her responsibility to be radical, and using ‘queer’ is just one way she can do that. “There is a really amazing theorist who is probably in his 70s now, a guy called Jeffrey Weeks. He was one of the first British sexuality theorists and one of his things was that every political movement starts with a moment of transgression but then is followed by a moment of assimilation because it’s very difficult to remain radical and transgressive all the time because the system is continually adapting to accommodate you, so you have to continually step outside that moment of transgression to a further moment of transgression and keep pushing. In some ways by having the label, the university can use me as a poster child. I have to keep pushing beyond that moment of recognition so it doesn’t become assimilation. Sometimes that means getting in people’s faces about things, but I’m comfortable with that.

Identifying as queer is also a way to undermine the hierarchy within the LGBT+ community for Cowan: “I’ve talked to other queer people about this too, this is not just me. There is a hierarchy in the lesbian community that if you’re having relationships with men then you don’t belong with us. So I feel strongly about being conscious of and trying to challenge those hierarchies within ourselves when we think that someone is not ‘gay enough’ or ‘queer enough’ or whatever. For me, identifying as queer is a way of avoiding that or even having that conversation. Like how many men have you slept with, how many women have you slept with or how many other genders of people have you slept with? It doesn’t really matter.

“I don’t want to be defined by who I have sex with. For me, it’s so much more important to politicise the question of why do people even want to know who you’re having sex with and how you have sex?”

Cowan holds that the persistence to know someone’s sexuality or their gender is just a product of society: “I very fundamentally believe that gender is constructed, I really do. But I think sexuality is also constructed. It’s not as simple as saying I choose my sexuality in the same way that I chose to wear that coat today. The fact that it’s constructed doesn’t mean that it’s easy to escape, but I’m very wary of saying that anything is biological, except that I have a hand – but that’s it, I have a hand. Even that is a social fact. What is a hand for? What does a hand do? And I might say that I have something attached to the end of my arm that is made of metal and that would still be a hand. Because of the functions that it does rather than that it’s made of blood and tissue and veins, right? So yes things can be said to be biological but they’re also deeply social. My view is that gender is constructed in the sense that that’s how we make sense of the world, we impose gender on it.

“Sex is also socially constructed to me. You can’t deny what somebody’s chromosomes are. You can have either XX, XY, XXY, you might not have any X chromosomes at all. There are lots of variations. They might be rare, but they exist. You can point to them the same way that you can point to that table but so what? That’s all it tells you. It doesn’t tell you what kind of person that’s gonna be. Will they be kind?”

Still, labels and identities exist and cannot be ignored. “Judith Butler talks about it a lot in Undoing Gender. In a way, it doesn’t really matter if it’s biological or socially constructed. What matters is how we respond to individuals who need something or who have been harmed and require some kind of response. That is the most important thing. But [labels still] matter very much for political purposes and it matters to the person.

“I still think it’s important that even if you can’t choose your attractions [that] you question your attractions…why am I attracted to that person? You can be conscious of the fact that we all live in a quite heterosexual white cisnormative soup, right? It would be really unusual if we didn’t internalise some of that. Which is why queer folk also have homophobia, transphobia, because we all live in the same pot of soup. Some of us are privileged enough to be able to think about, analyse, reject, discuss it with other people. Some people don’t have that. It’s super interesting to always reflect on your attraction. Because it is massively political. I don’t think people see it like that.”

Professor Cowan is incredibly welcoming and a wonderful listener. I know that I’ll be coming back for some more tea, biscuits and queer chats.


Image credits: Ted Eytan via Flickr

By Karolina Zieba

Karolina is a former Science Editor and Editor-in-Chief of The Student newspaper. She is also an editor for EuSci magazine and contributes to The National Student and the Oxford Scientist. She is interested in the relationship between science and society.

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